SEOUL: North Korea said Friday it would restore its severed hotline with South Korea, taking another step towards dialling down months of tension, even as it quibbled over its rival’s offer of high-level talks in Seoul.
In a sign of the horse-trading to come, the North said the proposed talks should initially be held at a lower level than the South’s wish for a ministerial meeting, and should take place on North Korean territory.
Such a framework was preferable given that “bilateral relations have been stalemated for years and mistrust has reached an extreme”, said a spokesman for Pyongyang’s Committee for the Peaceful Reunification of Korea (CPRK).
The hotline — suspended by the North in March as military tensions flared — would be restored from 2:00 pm (0500 GMT) Friday, the spokesman added.
The Red Cross link that runs through the border truce village of Panmunjom has long been a vital source of government-to-government communication in the absence of diplomatic relations.
The CPRK statement came a day after the two Koreas unexpectedly reached a snap agreement on opening a dialogue, and a day before a US-China summit at which the North’s nuclear programme will be high on the agenda.
North Korea’s nuclear test in February resulted in tightened UN sanctions and triggered a cycle of escalating tensions that saw Pyongyang threaten pre-emptive nuclear strikes against the Unites States and South Korea.
China, the North’s sole major ally and economic benefactor, has been under pressure from the United States to restrain its neighbour, and both Washington and Beijing welcomed the tentative talks agreement.
But US State Department spokeswoman Jennifer Psaki made it clear that North Korea would have to show some commitment towards abandoning its nuclear weapons programme before the US would get involved in a wider Korean dialogue.
“There remain a number of steps that the North Koreans need to take, including abiding by their international obligations … in order to have further discussion,” Psaki told reporters.
Pyongyang has repeatedly insisted that its nuclear deterrent is not up for negotiation.
The proposed agenda for the North-South talks involves both commercial and humanitarian issues, including reopening the Kaesong joint industrial complex — which lies just inside the North’s side of the border — and resuming cross-border family reunions.
The CPRK spokesman on Friday said the talks should be held in Kaesong, rather than the South Korean capital, and on June 9, three days earlier than the date proposed by Seoul.
The haggling contradicted the North’s initial talks proposal on Thursday, when the CPRK said the venue and date could be set by South Korea “at its convenience”.
Both sides have sought to portray themselves as the one that initiated the dialogue initiative, and South Korea’s Unification Ministry said it was “studying” the counter-offer.
The Kaesong complex, established in 2004 as a symbol of inter-Korean cooperation, was the most high-profile casualty of the recent tensions.
Operations ground to a halt after the North pulled all its 53,000 workers out in early April. The South withdrew its managers and officials soon afterwards.
South Korean President Park Geun-Hye had called weeks ago for talks on Kaesong, but the North had rejected the offer.
Park, who took office in February just days after the North’s nuclear test, has pushed a “trust-building” policy with Pyongyang.
However, in tandem with the United States, she has stressed that substantive talks would require North Korean steps towards denuclearisation.
“I hope this will serve as a momentum for South and North Korea to solve various pending issues,” Park said Thursday after the talks proposal was announced.
UN chief Ban Ki-moon — a former foreign minister of South Korea — also welcomed the announcement.
“This is an encouraging development towards reducing tensions and promoting peace and stability on the Korean Peninsula,” his spokesman said in a statement.